Listening Journal 03-06
St. Vincent - St. Vincent - St. Vincent scares me, though probably not for the reasons Annie Clark is hoping. Look at her last two records: she is fervently, obsessively preoccupied with proving her own wildness. She continues to try to explode the prim, stiff, Disney soundtrack-bred persona that made her an indie pop star with extra fuzz on her guitar and bloodier, sexier lyrics. The problem is it’s woven too deeply into her musical DNA. On record, she still comes across as someone whose apartment looks just a little too much like a furniture catalog for comfort. She makes some of the coldest, most calculated pop music this side of Kraftwerk while insisting that, no, she’s a totally messy weirdo like the rest of us. David Byrne was a good match for her—another geeky art-pop OCD case—but really she’s more like Janelle Monae: all self-constructed and perfectly starched. On St. Vincent she manages her best-yet impression of feral-and-ferocious, but even with her hair bleached white and sticking straight up, not a single one is out of place. The mid-tempo rock songs here have an eerily similar tone and texture to them—all tweaked just enough to stand apart—but none feel particularly satisfying. And the evenly spaced ballads “I Prefer Your Love” and “Severed Crossed Fingers” show once more, seemingly against her very intentions, how naturally suited she would be to a stirring rendition of “A Whole New World.” 
Real Estate - Atlas - A downcast, Byrds-ian record, even for them. Lovely, melodic guitar playing per usual, and even some blue, jazzy chord progressions on “The Bend” and “Past Lives” that belie the essential conservatism of this band. I mean, Martin Courtney is the same age as me, and while I certainly don’t feel young the way I did at 22, I’m not ready to start calling myself ‘old’ before I’m 30, dude. Part of you wonders why, if they’re still so nostalgic for the suburbs, don’t they just move back there already? And of course the answer is: because then they’d have nothing to write songs about. True, there are worse things to be than too comfortable, and few bands in recent memory have been able to return high rewards from such low risk. But let’s never forget to call Real Estate exactly what they are: our generation’s seminal dad-rock band. 
Marissa Nadler - July - I’d lost track of her since either Songs III or Little Hells, but it seems like she’s found a proper home on Sacred Bones (“Where Only the Famous Ones Get to Design their Own Album Covers”), and is still plugging along with the same kind of gothy folk she’s always made. Her voice is a little less shy now, more nuanced and expressive. The songs most shaded in by background etherea, pedal steel, and harmonies tend to land the hardest, but that’s less an argument for beefy arrangements and more an acknowledgement that she’s doing some expert coloring within the lines here. “Was It a Dream,” “1923,” and “Drive” are standout faves. 
These reviews, these critiques, these opinions—I’ve always had a problem with inexperienced critics. That is to say […] if you haven’t made a film, if you haven’t actually gone through the process that it takes to even get a script green-lit, let alone cast and produced and edited and released and marketed correctly—if you haven’t gone through all those things and somehow had a thing [made], I don’t really wanna hear too much about what you thought of my film.
I’m passing some time today by listening to this while working (and because I’m one of the few idiots who will still defend the LOST finale), and this bit, which is really just a quick aside in an otherwise fine conversation, sent up a red flag. It’s something you hear creative people across all different disciplines say from time to time: this assumption that having worked the mechanics (or bureaucracy) involved in getting mass-audience art made yourself is somehow essential to interpreting and critiquing the final product, with this hint of a defensive attitude underneath it that says “What, you think you can do better??”
Pop culture commentary and criticism is its own art form with its own craft, processes, audience, and all that stuff. It’s an art of explicit argument rather than suggestion or obfuscation, but it’s still ultimately put out into the world for other people to enjoy and react to and think about (a strict interpretation of Xgau’s “consumer guide” schtick is pretty well useless in the modern age so don’t even go there). The problem is that it relies on other art to fuel it, so people in those other arts can be understandably defensive about their work. [I would like to note, though, that music critics have been rather generous about the instances where the tables have been turned and their work has been portrayed in movies as childish (High Fidelity), sentimental (Almost Famous), or creepily highfalutin (American Psycho).] But this is how things are: if you put your name on something that goes out into the world for people to enjoy and react to, you expose yourself to criticism. And the legitimacy of any critique can’t be contingent upon the critic’s experience with anything else but the listening/reading/viewing experience at hand.
I personally think all art of any ‘brow’ should work this way, but come on: it’s Pop. The only barrier to entry is “did you see/read/listen to it?”
Listening Journal 02-11
Mas Ysa - Worth - Budding genius might be a bit much to hope for. There’s some novelty in context here—ambient interludes and emo disguised as electropop—but I don’t see the appeal translating much beyond the hype cycle right now. Also, if this is supposed to be like a Xiu Xiu for people who find Xiu Xiu too abrasive, then I take issue with that too (namely: being abrasive is the whole point of Xiu Xiu). I like the austerity and he’s doing an admirable job of trying to bridge the gap between cold electronic sounds and angsty human emotions. But the pieces aren’t all fitting together quite right. This is an EP and an artist’s first release, so some obvious room for growth should be considered a positive. I’m just saying: let’s not get too excited about a project that has yet to prove anything. 
Quilt - Held in Splendor - If Olivia Tremor Control’s Dusk at Cubist Castle grew out of a dusty pile of old Byrds, Zombies, and Beatles records, then this album grows out of a torrented copy of Dusk at Cubist Castle. Which is to say it adheres strictly to the kind of late-60s psych pop that never really goes away, snowballing over each year’s nostalgists and absorbing them into the collective consciousness or whatever. Quilt are capable and confident, but you do have to wonder if anyone really needs to spend a whole album listening to them coast on someone else’s fumes with few ideas of their own. For fans of Tame Impala, Woods, and yeah, OTC. 
Bohren & Der Club of Gore - Piano Nights - I kind of love this instantly just for what it is: four German guys in black playing sad jazz as slow as humanly possible. It should be a joke on The Simpsons or something, right? Yet it’s hard for me to argue with the simple beauty of this music. It’s completely unflinching in mood and tempo, with the kind of dark, opioid gravitational pull that critics used to talk about in trip-hop. These pieces are too spare to be weepy or gothic, but they’re also too warm and expressive to be lumped in with Low-style autism. After about ten minutes it becomes impossible and pointless to distinguish one song from the next, and a solid hour of this stuff is more than I can imagine anyone ever needing. But it is deep, meditative, and gorgeous. 
Listening Journal 01-31
Dum Dum Girls - Too True - They’ve done it again: sub-punk tempos, echoing guitars, husky dead-eyed cool blended with teenage romanticism, and one-note hooks that rival any of the ‘denser’ guitar pop you might find out there. Credit Dee Dee’s ongoing apprenticeship with iconic producer Richard Gottehrer or that unmistakable tremble in her lower register, but she’s found a way to tap into pop music’s collective unconscious in ways that one-time peers like Vivian Girls or Best Coast could only dream of doing. Some of the records DDGs have put out the last couple years have hinted at a coming transition to unapologetic clarity and loftiness. And while, yeah, Dee Dee’s been compared to Chrissy Hynde a bunch and it’s not hard to imagine her penning at least one world-conquering hit in her lifetime, I kinda love how evasive this record is. It hearkens back to the band’s ultra-streamlined debut, as if they’ve once again got no time for anything so flowery as “Lord Knows” or “Coming Down.” It’s not perfect (“Rimbaud Eyes” in particular is rather asinine) but it’s a satisfying record that preserves the band’s sense of mystery and intrigue. 
Hospitality - Trouble - Tough not to see this as something of a transitional album, or at the very least an attempt by a still-fresh band to not get pigeon-holed. As fantastic as their debut was, it was all too easy to slot into the Etsy wasteland of twee-for-grownups. So now Amber Papini and Co. go out of their way to introduce a little edge to the palate: heavier guitars, more cymbals, retro-futurist synth sweeps, even some honest to goodness noodling. This album’s mellow, moody, wistful second half throws the slight cluttering of the first half into sharper relief, offering a split-personality view of the band that forces the listener to take sides. Me, I like the gentle breeze vibes of “Sullivan,” and “Sunship,” though the new wave electro of “Last Words” does point up a possible new direction. If you can’t make your songs work as spring-loaded little contraptions, try stretching them out to see if they reveal their charms on their own. If nothing else, Trouble is evidence that Hospitality’s best work still lies ahead of them. 
I had a dream last night that a friend and I were sitting at a table at some kind of big fancy dinner party and we were making fun of Morrissey and doing bad Morrissey singing impressions, but then it turned out Morrissey was sitting at our table and we spent the rest of the night worried that he might have overheard, be unreasonably offended, and decide to sue us.
The Dreaded List, 2013 Edition
Presenting my twenty five favorite albums of 2013—Happy New Year, friends!
Alpine - A is for Alpine
The Besnard Lakes - Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO
Bill Callahan - Dream River
Camera Obscura - Desire Lines
Danny Brown - Old
Daughn Gibson - Me Moan
DJ Koze - Amygdala
Eleanor Friedberger - Personal Record
Iceage - You’re Nothing
Kanye West - Yeezus
Perfect Pussy - I Have Lost All Desire for Feeling
My Bloody Valentine - m b v
Sally Shapiro - Somewhere Else
True Widow - Circumambluation
Wampire - Curiosity
California X - California X
Only eight songs long, with some guy named Lemmy singing about spiders in his room, and the same fuzzbox distortion on every song—what is it about this record that’s made it one of the year’s indie sleeper hits? Admittedly, fashion plays a role. There haven’t been many bands putting out this specific strain of Amherst rock (that is, suggesting a Dinosaur Jr. influence without actually sounding much like them) and current tastes in punk are leaning grungy anyway. But this music wouldn’t communicate any of its smoky, crunchy appeal without such well constructed songs underneath. Lemmy Gurtowsky’s got a knack for tossing off chord progressions that sound completely natural but never boring, lead lines that lend emotional weight, and melodies that catch the ear without ever really asking for attention. Partly due to the simplicity of their sound, California X can come off as quasi-slackers. They don’t sound interested in impressing anyone and you could never call them pretentious, but don’t let them fool you: that casual attitude belies some of the meatiest rock music around.
Disclosure - Settle
If it’s that time of year when ‘critical consensus’ gets trotted out as a talking point among writers and listeners, then surely this is the record we should use to silence the haters. No other album released this year bridged the tastes of indie rock bros, dance heads, poptimists, and everyone else within earshot so effortlessly as to nullify the differences. Howard and Guy Lawrence, barely out of their teens, have made one of the most compelling statements of millennial polymorphism we’ve seen to date and a simple dance pop record that slays on all fronts. Settle works its way through peaks and valleys like a traditional album—dance floor bangers, romantic ballads, anthems, technical workouts—but never loses its focus on the shiny edges of modern house music. Every collaboration, from R&B crooner Sam Smith’s full-throated turn on “Latch” to London Grammar’s devastating downtempo closer “Help Me Lose My Mind,” fleshes out the greatest strengths of each vocalist while folding them into Disclosure’s sonic world (they even make AlunaGeorge sound good!). It’s such a fun, natural listen that its triumphalism matters far less than this one simple fact: in every way great pop music can, it moves you.
DJ Rashad - Double Cup
This is one of those great crossover records that should open doors in both directions. Footwork producers who have been working in obscurity for years (decades, even) should suddenly find themselves with a much larger, receptive audience. And listeners outside of niche Chicago and UK scenes are undoubtedly finding their way into this crazy, fascinating sound via Rashad’s smooth distillation. His attention to melody on Double Cup makes it something of an instructive album. It teaches you how to listen to it by tempering some of the MPC heroics and endlessly pulsing bass while adding more familiar sounds on top: soul, lounge, house, club rap, even downcast psych funk. What you do with it once you get it, though, is up to you. For those of us who lack the coordination to dance to this stuff properly, sitting still with headphones turns out to be just as rewarding. Chalk it up to Rashad’s deftness, experience, and ear for a tune. The years have paid off: he’s made an imaginative, engrossing classic.
Earl Sweatshirt - Doris
Who knows if it bodes well or ill for the rest of the Odd Future crew, but this album marks a significant shift in Earl’s identity. Not only is he pushing back against the mania built up around him in his military school absence, but he’s setting out to make his own name a degree removed from the pack. Yes, a lot of his compatriots show up here, often jumping out in front of songs and clamoring for the attention Earl doesn’t seem to want. Domo Genesis, Vince Staples, and Tyler all turn in strong verses, but they sound less like members of a group and more like a clutch of Earl’s aimless post-teen friends, their voices jabbering around in his head. He’s simultaneously hardened and more sensitive to the world around him, at home in a crumbling and depressed city. There’s something sinister to it: the music shudders and slithers in the darkness behind him with live-sounding drums and scuffed up jazz interludes. Often distracted, profusely talented, and far more perceptive than he gets credit for, Earl is clearly just getting started.
Joanna Gruesome - Weird Sister
Whether the story is apocryphal or not, it’s easy to picture these guys meeting at an anger management class, maybe through a shared and equal affinity for Heavenly and Sonic Youth. They’re the twee band that can’t bear to be cute or nice, who would rather, as they often remind us, burn your cardigan, pull out your teeth, and crush your skull. Their energy is infectious, but each song on this thrashy, gleefully foul-mouthed album is packed to the gills with hooks and barbs, meaning it takes more than the 28-minute run time to unspool it. Going back to it again and again is part of the fun. Their supposedly unfortunate name turns out to be a source of strength: like the made-up pop star who lent her name to Talulah Gosh, Joanna Gruesome is a moniker that takes the culture around it and twists it into the band’s own private identity. It stays up in your face with bratty cleverness, even as the band themselves practically spit on your shoes. If part of you doesn’t find that wholly endearing, I don’t know what to do for you.
Lady Lamb the Beekeeper - Ripely Pine
“Choose to use your heart, even if towards the harshest fate,” sings Aly Spaltro near the end of her debut full-length. It’s a reminder that the album’s title is an aspiration: let your fear, joy, and longing be known in all of its intensity, and open yourself up to the world even if it doesn’t accept you. For sixty bracing minutes here, she does just that. Like Connor Oberst and Sufjan Stevens before her, Spaltro uses the folksy singer-songwriter mold as a springboard instead of a cage, intent on letting each song say everything it needs to say. Her arrangements are deceptively meticulous. Songs swell and recede with natural ease even as her voice quivers and gasps on the edge of cracking. “Bird Balloons” is the big show stopper—all grungy, seething, and scorned—but her acoustic tracks like ”Florence Berlin” and “Little Brother” prove a lullaby can be just as powerful. At one point she muses, “Maybe hearts are better bitter, battered, filthy, vulgar,” but she’s not giving up and going numb. She’s just underlining the point: it’s better to live and lose than to not really live at all.
Moonface - Julia With Blue Jeans On
Spencer Krug seems to have had a rough couple of years. Following a crippling break up, a move to Scandinavia, and a handful of tinny, meandering EPs, it’s truly striking to hear him boiled down to just voice and piano here, as alone as he can be. Julia is the sort of break up album where every angle and facet of a dissolved relationship is obsessed over post-mortem. There are tender memories (“Dreamy Summer”), self-lacerations (“Barbarian” I and II), ruminations on cosmic significance (“Everyone is Noah, Everyone is the Ark”), and plenty of doom and regret (“Black is Back in Style,” “Love the House You’re In”). All the while Krug’s piano acts like a lone spotlight, lending these songs an operatic quality far beyond their familiar themes. Stark, gripping, and not quite transcendental, it’s a record for those of us who sometimes need to see others’ emotions writ large and maudlin in order to get a handle on our own. It can be a therapeutic listen that way. And even if what little hope Krug offers is constantly overshadowed by his doubts, it’s a lovely, tumultuous reminder that healing is always a process.
Pure Bathing Culture - Moon Tides
With the dream pop gold rush of the late ‘00s finally over and everyone sick to death of reverb-drowned jangle, it’s time to seek out those acts with a secret musical ingredient: personality. Pure Bathing Culture have a name that suggests cultish spa treatments and the airy lyrics about crystals and misty forests to match, but it proves deceptive. They’re more Belinda Carlisle than Enya—lovers of wide open melodies and west coast breezes—and the songs on this album have a way of burrowing deep into the back of your mind. It’s a record that belongs to the tradition of even-handed adult contemporary pop, where every part of every song is well attended and nothing is sacrificed for the sake of a big chorus. From a self-evident single like “Only Lonely Lovers,” with its modified “Be My Baby” beat and indelible head-swaying tune, to moody closer “Temples of the Moon,” which stares out at a dark ocean with no end in sight, Moon Tides is a vivid, inviting album full of wonder and possibility. That it emerges so fully formed at a time when records like this are apt to get lost in the shuffle is all the more impressive.
Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
Vampire Weekend has to be one of the most difficult indie pop bands of the decade, not in the sense of being inscrutable or atonal, but because of their persona and place in culture. They’re seen as fey, arch, pretentious, privileged know-it-alls—traits most people would hide or actively scorn in themselves. Beyond that, their music can be dense with meaning even when it purports to be just a bunch of snappy pop songs. So I imagine I’m not alone in having to be won over by Modern Vampires of the City slowly. If their first record bore the marks of African pop via Cape Cod, and Contra embodied a fresh, polyglot California, then this is clearly their Manhattan record. It’s dreamy, twinkling, and buttressed by history and faith and the bigness of the world. Or, if you prefer, a record about waking up at the end of your twenties still not sure who you are and where you belong. There are a lot of young people using the city to help figure those things out these days, and while many of us may be reluctant to anoint these guys our spokespeople, Vampire Weekend do an admirable job of stepping up to the plate, warts and all.
Yo La Tengo - Fade
The shortest YLT album in recent memory and the mellowest since And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, this record bubbles under with an almost naturalistic bent. From the giant tree on the cover to the surf rock of “Paddle Forward” to the gentle gurgling percussion on “Two Trains,” it’s not hard to catch the zen-like calm with which Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew deliver these songs. But rather than sounding tedious or overly ponderous, Fade feels comfortable in its attention to delicate minutia: background organ tones, the clean touch of reverb on the guitar, the croak creeping into Kaplan’s voice. Even the anthemic bookends “Ohm” and “Before We Run” have a certain fluidity to them, as reassuring as they are exultant. So after thirty years of insistent diversity and encyclopedic variance, they seem to have found the appeal of a little consistency (for the moment). We can chalk it up to maturity or to the continued pressure to concoct new ideas, but whatever the cause, Yo La Tengo are aging gracefully.